State's Smith got to see the Vanderbilt version after last year's game but not in it, as L.Smith was a redshirt freshman in 2008. Z.Smith was an alternate safety and special-teams regular, getting two tackles in State's 17-13 upset of the #13-ranked ‘Dores. In that game, and all season, Vanderbilt rotated a pair of quarterbacks and one, McKenzi Adams, is back as a senior. Adams was 5-of-9 throwing for 47 yards and was picked off by State's LB Karlin Brown with three minutes remaining.
Now it's L.Smith in the starting job with Adams still the alternate. "They'll bring him in," Z.Smith said. "It's kind of like what we do with Chris Relf and Tyson Lee, they can come in and run the option with Adams and that's kind of what Vandy is going to try to throw at us." This doesn't mean Smith is just the designated thrower, though. Z.Smith knows better.
"He's a real good runner," the Bulldog DB said. "He can play wide receiver as easily as he can quarterback. He has a really good arm, and sometimes people forget that. But he's a really good runner and we have to control him in the pocket and spy on him."
CHANGING THE PACE: Speaking of spying, Smith and a couple of cohorts were doing some early recon watching Vanderbilt video on their own. The Bulldogs operate under a new sort of season schedule this year, with no Monday practice most weeks. With a school holiday last Monday there was a session, but not today.
Which isn't the same thing as a complete day off of course. Particularly not for the Bulldog defense after their showing, or lack thereof, at Auburn. "We feel real bad about the game," said SS Charles Mitchell. "So we'll prepare a little harder this week. I know the secondary and rest of the defense is going to be in there for today and watch a little film, finish watching the game from Auburn so we can correct the mistakes we made and better ourselves."
For that matter having a practice the day-after a game is another big change at State in 2009, since the previous regimes only had Sunday workouts under very unusual circumstances. Coach Dan Mullen operates by a different schedule though and likes the idea of getting the guys back in a team-setting as soon as possible after one game to start shifting emphasis towards the next.
Mitchell reported that while naturally a lot of players were sore and a few banged-up, "It felt pretty good out there. It does help you put the game behind you quicker." And there was much to put behind emotionally, if not technically, from a 49-24 outcome.
"It was a little quiet at the beginning," Mitchell said. "We picked it up. We just had to realize the game was over and we had to move on. Coach says the good thing about football is when you lose you got next week to get the chance to go beat somebody else."
Beating Vanderbilt will involve fixing quite a few issues since, as Mitchell noted, the Commodores run a spread-offense that is somewhat similar to Auburn's edition. So at least lessons learned from one Saturday evening can be put into immediate practice as Bulldog defenders now have first-hand experience to draw on.
"It'll be a little more intense," Mitchell said of this week's approach. "I think we'll be a lot more focused. I feel we were prepared going into the (Auburn) game but weren't ready for the real speed, how it was going to be. I think we'll be a lot more prepared. A lot of the stuff they were doing, they had a couple of trick plays and we lost leverage. We talked about trying to keep leverage all week and let up on that. And the secondary gave up too many deep balls."
Leverage, deep coverage, pressuring passers, containing on the edge…all areas to emphasize as the Bulldogs prepare for a second-straight SEC road trip. As Mitchell said, "We're very anxious to get back on the field. Because we feel we have a lot of stuff we need to do and we didn't do it last week."
FLAGGED: Though defensive issues have dominated these first couple of post-Auburn days, the boss isn't letting his offense off the hook either. For one instance, after holding a 3-minute edge in possession time at intermission, State ended up three minutes behind at final horn. And of State's last eight drives, beginning mid-second quarter, only one lasted more than four snaps. It by no coincidence produced the only Bulldog points of the last half.
So the offense wasn't doing enough to help their teammates on defense out, in Mullen's mind. Or enough, period. "We're not executing at a high enough level offensively to overcome mistakes," he said today. Mostly he meant missed opportunities to gain ground and move chains, or an annoying number of flags tossed at the Dogs.
Limiting or outright eliminating penalties is a daily practice policy, but execution in this too has been lacking. State not only ranks last in the SEC in penalty yards after two games, but is the only league squad giving away over 100 yards to flags; 120.5 to be exact. Georgia is 11th at 83.0 yards, for comparison.
"Part of it is mental toughness," Mullen said. "Another aspect is we're learning a new offense and we still have guys constantly thinking. And when you are thinking you're not reacting, which leads to mistakes. That was a big part of our offensive penalties, hopefully as our guys get more comfortable running the system you will see cleaner execution offensively."
At the same time the coach now thinks perhaps more pressure could have been put on Tiger coverage, particularly downfield. "We probably should have taken some shots a little earlier," he said today. Regardless of which quarterback is playing, through two games the only true long strike attempt has been by a receiver. That was when rookie Chad Bumphis heaved it deep on the opening play of the Jackson State game, incomplete. Otherwise Lee and Relf have confined their throwing to a zone only about 20 yards deep, though stretching fully from sideline-to-sideline.
Wherever the ball is to be thrown, though, the emphasis for now is back on execution. "We've got some things to clean-up with our receivers and quarterbacks," Mullen said, reminding that the spread approach is still pretty new to every Bulldog involved and thus pitching and catching have a lot of rough spots left. That is preventing too many third-down conversions which would keep the ball in Dog paws and the defense resting on the sideline.
"We've got to get that timing down in the throwing game. As we improve it allows us to keep more drives alive, and gives us an opportunity to overcome a bad call or a penalty. Every day in practice you see our timing getting better and as long as we continue to improve it will allow us to hold onto the football longer."
EARLY WAKE-UP CALL: The Southeastern Conference notified Mississippi State today that the September 26 home game with Louisiana State has been assigned the SEC Network/ESPN affiliate slot, meaning a 11:21 (CT) kickoff at Scott Field. Needless to say a portion of the Bulldog fan base isn't thrilled with having to get to campus in the morning hours.
Mullen, now, he sees it differently and likes getting the early slot. "Better to wake up and go play!" he smiled at the news.
INJURY UPDATE: Mullen said that TE Brandon Henderson (ankle) is still rehabbing, after he missed the Auburn game. OG Tobias Smith (ankle) returned to practice last week but is still catching up after missing most of a month's practicing. The redshirt freshman did not make the 70-man road game roster for Auburn. "We will know more as the week goes on," said Mullen of Smith's possible participation at Vanderbilt.